After their father's death, sisters Vanessa, Ellie, and Georgiana are stunned to learn a well-kept family secret. A yellowed letter tucked away in a family Bible reveals that the woman who gave birth to their late father had not died when he was born, as they had always believed. Their paternal grandmother gave up her son shortly after his birth, leaving this note with instructions to never reveal her name or background to him. The letter is signed, simply, Hattie.
The sisters are each at a turning point -- Vanessa is feeling stifled in a stale marriage and career; Ellie is perpetually single but desperately wants marriage and motherhood; and baby sister Georgiana is a successful model but longs to do something more serious with her life. Seizing upon the idea of finding their long-lost grandmother, the women set out on a trip to Montana, where they hope not only to find their father's birth mother but also to rekindle their bonds of sisterhood and possibly even find their true selves.
But they have no idea of the consequences of their quest. If the sisters find Hattie and live to tell their story, everything Hattie has worked and dreamed for will be destroyed. Will she allow the sisters to uncover the family secret and escape alive?
1. At the opening of the novel, Matthew Wentworth, the dashing, larger-than-life father of the Wentworth girls, has been dead almost a year. Which sister is struggling the most with their father’s death? Do you think this affects their relationships with the men in their lives? If so, how?
2. Myrna reflects on her days as Hattie, and remembers her father after the mine accident, dying from TB, with the scars on his back from the beatings he received at the hands of his father, with not a nickel to his name. She recalls the time her father sang the Christmas carol as a “moment of pure love, the sort of which does not come often in a lifetime, the sort of which one buries away because remembering is too painful.” (p.69) How did the death of Hattie’s father impact her? How did her difficult childhood mold the adult she became?
3. Why do you think the girls, Vanessa in particular, had such a difficult time adjusting to their mother’s news about renting the family apartment and moving to the south of France with her new boyfriend? Do you think Mrs. Wentworth could have handled the news of her sudden departure a little differently?
4. From the very first sentence, we get a glimpse into Myrna’s mercurial character: “As was her custom, Myrna had deliberately kept her visitor waiting for half an hour---a practice that established hierarchy.” (p. 1) Why do you think Myrna chose to handle the arrival of her long-lost grand-daughters in the manner that she did? What does this say about her character? What were her other options for dealing with her new-found family?
5. After Vanessa meets Randall Cunningham, Myrna’s congressman son, he confides in her: “Mother never talked about her early life, and she had no photographs or keepsakes or mementos from her childhood. Not a one. We never made a trip back to her home town, never visited her family’s graves. My mother was the most private person I have ever known, and I find it extremely difficult to believe that she would tell total strangers things that she never told her own children.” (p.300) Were you surprised by Randall’s reaction when he learns the truth about his mother from Vanessa? Do you get the sense that Randall was completely oblivious to his driven mother’s ways? He then tells Vanessa that the door to the mine was open. Do you think Myrna came back to free them or did Willy escape to exact revenge on her employer?
6. Myrna reflects on her relationship with Willy: “Willy’s entire life revolved around pleasing Myrna and her devotion to Myrna was absolute…Already loneliness was seeping into Myrna’s bones and being as she realized how adrift she was going to be without her Willy. Willy had cared more about her than anyone else in the entire world. More than her own children.” (p. 254) Discuss Willy and Myrna’s relationship. Do you think it ran deeper than just employer and friend? Was it reciprocal?
7. At the end, how have each of the sisters changed? How do you think they will approach relationships in the future? How will each sister will take this incredible ordeal and relate it to their lives?
8. Family Secrets combines a touching family saga with thrilling action and intrigue. Were you surprised when the story took such a dangerous turn?
9. At the end, Vanessa has an emotional visit with her mother in France, where she breaks down in tears and realizes, “She needed to cry a bit before her sister and daughter reached the top. Good tears…Tears because she was loved and loved in return, which is the greatest gift that life has to offer.” (p.314) Love is a major theme in the novel. Discuss the different ways it is carried throughout. What are some of the other themes?
Enhance Your Book Club
1) Deer Lodge is an actual town in Montana known for its two largest contributions---mining and prisons. Deer Lodge was home to the Old Montana Prison, which is now a museum, and currently houses the main corrections facility in the state. You can learn more about the town here: http://www.bigskyfishing.com/Montana-Info/city-galleries/deer-lodge-mt.shtm
2) If your book club meets for dinner, why not assign a character to each member and have them bring a dish that their character would make or enjoy. For example, Ellie is sure to bring something elegant, sparse and chic, whereas Vanessa might opt for comfort food.
3) Learn more about the author Judith Henry Wall by visiting her official site: www.judithhenrywall.com